The Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha has been missing in action for months. So where did he go? As it turns out, he moved to China!
Moustapha, who is the subject of an FBI investigation for his alleged role in intimidating Syrian-American protesters and their families, is still listed as the Syria's ambassador to the United States on the Syrian embassy's website. But on his personal blog Feb. 8, he suddenly announced he and his family had moved to China, in a post entitled "A Fresh Start from the Middle Kingdom."
"Now that we have moved to China, I plan to resume blogging about my life, family and friends in China, as well as writing on Chinese culture, history and art," he wrote in his first post since August 2011. "I have a feeling that this is going to be a wonderful journey of learning, exploring, and, most importantly, serendipitously discovering one of the most remarkable world civilizations. I hope you will enjoy my Chinese adventure."
Moustapha had been implicated in the Justice Department's look into Syrian spying activities in Washington, an investigation that resulted in the October arrest of Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a Syrian-American living in Virginia. Soueid stands accused of working as an agent for the Syrian intelligence service as part of a conspiracy to harass the Syrian-based families of protesters and dissidents in the United States.
"Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa is involved in activities that vary between espionage, threatening Syrian dissidents, and lobbying and organizing rallies in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, in June.
In July, it was reported that the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau were investigating the Syrian embassy for using its diplomatic staff to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington for the purpose of threatening their families back in Syria.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the embassy's information was being used back in Syria to arrest and even attack family members of protesters. Moustapha dismissed the allegations as "slander and sheer lies." But he stopped blogging and disappeared from Washington soon thereafter.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned to Washington last week, not as a diplomatic punishment to the Syrian regime, but because the streets surrounding the American compound in Damascus became too dangerous. But if Washington wants to formally expel the Syrian ambassador to the United States, it will have to send that notice to him in Beijing.
Or the State Department can just leave a comment on his blog, since he seems to be using it again.
Ironically, Moustapha himself seemed to predict the currently unfolding events in Syria on his blog last March, when he wrote a post about the Egyptian revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
"What has happened in Egypt in the past month is something of great historic significance," he wrote. "The ramifications of this revolution will continue to unfold, and its impact will reverberate for years to come."
The State Department rolled out its fiscal 2013 budget request today, which contains several items that are sure to meet resistance when lawmakers roll up their sleeves and dig into the budget this spring and summer.
International programs don't have strong constituencies on Capitol Hill to begin with, and Congress has its own ideas for how to spend foreign aid.
The State Department knows all of this, of course, and has framed its fiscal 2013 budget request as a small portion of the federal budget that contributes directly to national security. State's $51.6 billion request, however, faces a GOP-led House that is searching hard for discretionary budget items to cut and a foreign-policy-minded Senate that wants to use aid to press foreign governments to act more in line with U.S. priorities.
"This is a moment of historic change around the world. They are also tight times for our government and for our people -- the two truths that have guided us from day one," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said Monday. "And so, as I'd like to remind you once again, with just 1 percent of the federal budget, the State Department and USAID will maintain our country's leadership in a changing world, what'll promote our values, jumpstart our economy, and above all keep America safe in 2013 and beyond."
Here are five of the items in the State Department's budget that will spark debates in Congress this year:
1) The top line budget numbers. The State Department and USAID requested $51.6 billion for fiscal year 2013, but $8.2 billion is categorized as temporarily needed funding for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan under what's called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (OCO) account. The remaining $43.6 billion is the "core budget" request and represents a 10 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress.
For fiscal 2012, lawmakers moved a lot of funding from the core budget to the OCO account in order to fit State Department funding inside the mandatory discretionary spending caps set forth in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Now, State is trying to move that funding back into its core budget so that it will have it whenever the need for emergency funding wanes.
In general, State prefers to use the OCO accounts when possible because Congress is more willing to fund programs that are needed in the current wars... and because the OCO account is off budget. ("Obviously, the benefit of the OCO account in general allows for all of you who report on this and for the Hill to look at the costs of our frontline states, to look at the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan," said Nides.)
But outside experts see the OCO account, which has been used by State since last year and by the Pentagon since 9/11, as a slush fund. "I think OCO accounts are a scourge," said Gordon Adams, former national security director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. "Special extra accounts are a refuge for budget scoundrels. Funding for all three of those countries are going to be subject to debate and dispute."
2) Middle East Funding Initiative. The administration is requesting $770 million for this new initiative, which is meant to support U.S. activities in countries affected by the "Arab Spring." This is the largest single new program in the State Department's budget request, but there's not a lot of detail in the request about how the money will actually be spent.
Nides said it's impossible to predict. "The Arab Spring has come. We need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives," he said. "I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent, because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill."
Some $70 million of that total comes from existing programs, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and USAID's Office of Middle East Partnerships (OMEP). The remaining $700 million is "new money," an administration official said. "We came to the Middle East changes without any resources dedicated to this in the budget," the official said, explaining that State has spent about $800 million since last year to respond to the protests in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but had to cobble those funds together from other accounts.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said Adams. "It's probably not a bad idea in theory but it is way too large for having no program."
3) Egypt military funding. The State Department is again asking Congress for $1.3 billion in direct aid to the Egyptian military. The $1.3 billion in military aid that Congress appropriated for fiscal 2012, however, has not been sent yet and might be held up for a while because of the escalating crisis concerning pending charges against 19 American NGO workers in Cairo. By law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to certify the Egyptian military is moving towards a true democratic transition before that money can be released and many top lawmakers are urging her not to do so. There are even bills to halt the funding regardless of Clinton's determination. Additionally, the administration is requesting $250 million in direct assistance to the civilian government, which it believes to be more responsible for the NGO crackdown than the military.
Nevertheless, the administration is hoping that will all be worked out by next year. "Our goal is, is to provide them those funds," said Nides. "I mean, it's obviously clear to all of us that we have issues that we need to work through. And we're working very aggressively to do so. But this budget reflects our commitment and our desire to fully fund those initiatives."
4) Pakistan civilian assistance. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in tatters, but the administration is still requesting more than $2 billion in aid to Pakistan. But in a shift from last year, the administration is requesting significantly less money for assistance to the Pakistani civilian government while increasing requested aid for the Pakistani military. That may seem odd considering that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have been widely accused of playing both sides in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in a military garrison town for years.
Nevertheless, the administration is requesting only $1.1 billion for in Pakistani civilian assistance for 2013, even thought the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorized up to $1.5 billion each year. Meanwhile, the administration requested $800 million under the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund (PCCF), a reimbursement program for the Pakistani military jointly run by State and DOD, and State is requesting $350 million in foreign military financing for Pakistan, up from $98 million in fiscal 2012.
An administration official said that becuase Congress only gave State about $1 billion last year under the Kerry-Lugar program, that's about how much they decided to ask for in FY 2013. "It's still one of the largest recipients of assistance in our budget," the administration official said. "We have a lot of negotiation to do and we'll be making that argument that we can and we'll have to figure out with Congress what the final number will be."
5) Palestinian Authority assistance.
The administration requested $370 million for economic support funding for the
West Bank and Gaza in fiscal 2013, down from the $397 million given to the PA
in fiscal 2012 but still one of the largest U.S. assistance programs in the
budget. Congress is extremely sour on PA assistance, however, because peace
talks have broken down and because Fatah and Hamas are planning to form a unity
The reduction in West Bank funding is because equipment for the U.S. police training program there has been largely completed, an administration official said. State also cut the amount of direct cash transfers to the Palestinian Authority from $200 million to $150 million. "We think the economic situation is slightly better so we think we can do a little bit less," the official said.
What's more, the administration is also requesting $79 million for UNESCO in 2013, even though the U.S. government is legally barred from contributing to UNESCO because the organization admitted Palestine as a member.
"The Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the president's also articulated -- and quite clearly -- that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO," said Nides. "We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we are not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver. And we have made it clear to the Congress we'd like a waiver."
Foggy Bottom took a big budget cut in 2012, so the State Department is asking for more money next year while requesting more than $8 billion for diplomatic activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.
The president's fiscal 2013 budget request, released today, asks Congress for $51.6 billion for the State Department and USAID, which the administration describes as a 1.6 percent, or 0.8 billion increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress in the latest appropriations bill. That $51.6 billion total includes $8.2 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is meant to pay for the temporary costs of the wars in Southwest Asia and their aftermaths.
The administration's request for the entire international affairs account, known as the 150 function of federal budgeting, is $56.3 billion, a $1.4 billion or 2.6 percent increase of fiscal 2012 enacted levels. The $8.2 billion being requested for the OCO account is about $3 billion or 26 percent less than the level enacted for fiscal year 2012.
"Even in tough times, this request represents a smart and strategic investment. The State Department and USAID are among the most effective -- and cost effective -- tools we have to create economic opportunity and keep Americans safe," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in her letter accompanying the State and USAID budget request.
"We know that this is a time of fiscal constraint and economic hardship for the American people. So we are seeking out every opportunity to work smarter and more efficiently. We have proposed painful but responsible cuts without compromising our national security mission."
The budget request would cut funding for global health programs by $300 million and cut the request for humanitarian assistance by another $300 million, Clinton wrote. Overall assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia was cut by 18 percent in the request.
The budget request also includes $770 million for a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund -- call it the "Arab Spring" budget. It is not yet clear to what extent the $770 million represents new funding vs. the repacking of old programs.
We'll have more after a series of briefings...
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
In private phones calls this week, a top State Department official has been sending the message that the Egyptian military leadership is not behind the recent raids on NGO organizations and the prosecutions of aid workers, including American citizens.
According to three NGO officials with knowledge of the conversations, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has been calling around to various stakeholders to keep them informed on the ever-worsening saga involving charges against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who stand accused of fomenting anti-government protests in Cairo. Part of Burns's message has been that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took executive power last February after ousting President Hosni Mubarak, may not ultimately be behind the raids or necessarily in favor of the prosecutions that resulted.
"We are keeping the affected NGOs apprised of our efforts to resolve this situation," a State Department official told The Cable. "There is a vacuum of authority. We have been directly pressing the authorities in Cairo, including the SCAF, although they may not be the driving force behind this."
The American Embassy in Cairo has claimed in similar discussions that the SCAF was surprised by the Dec. 29 raids on several NGOs, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, the NGO officials said. The raids were reportedly conducted by Interior Ministry forces, not army soldiers.
The Obama administration has an interest in drawing a distinction between the actions of the SCAF, with which the United States has maintained a multi-decade alliance, and other parts of the Egyptian government, including the judiciary and the Ministry of International Cooperation, run by Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
For the NGO officials, the distinction is less important because they believe that the SCAF should exert more influence over Abul-Naga to stop the prosecutions and harassment of NGO groups, even if military leaders are not personally responsible for them.
"The SCAF is running the country, and whether they knew about the raids or not is beside the point. They bear ultimate responsibility for what is going on," one NGO official said. "She's the public face of this campaign and if they want to they can put pressure on her."
The United States' annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt is now under intense scrutiny in Washington. Many in the NGO community and on Capitol Hill believe the State Department is trying to defend the aid as a means of preserving what's left of the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, which has been a linchpin in maintaining U.S. influence in the region and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was dispatched to Cairo to confront the Egyptian government about the raids. He told the Egyptian media during that trip, "The administration has continued to make a very strong case for our assistance to Egypt."
That was before the Egyptian judiciary refused to let aid workers leave Cairo and decided to charge them with criminal offenses, including Sam Lahood, the Cairo head of IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jake Walles led a classified briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, after which senators who participated complained that they had heard no real plan to end the crisis. Those same lawmakers said the administration was working valiantly on the issue, but with no measurable success.
Lawmakers could propose legislation to immediately cut off assistance to the SCAF, rather than wait until the administration is required to certify that Egypt has met new, more stringent conditions placed on the annual aid package, but Congress isn't quite there yet.
"The Egyptians ought to know what they're doing charging and detaining Americans on what I believe are trumped-up charges is endangering the aid we are giving them," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable Tuesday. "We have a real interest in having good relations with Egypt because they have a central role in the region. On the other hand we can't just sit back and let them do what they're doing with the NGOs."
In a stream of statements Tuesday, a drumbeat of top lawmakers threatened to support withholding aid to Egypt if the NGO situation isn't resolved. "Congressional support for Egypt -- including continued financial assistance -- is in jeopardy," Lieberman said in a press statement along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the board of IRI.
"Yesterday's prosecutions are frankly a slap in the face to Americans who have supported Egypt for decades and to Egyptian individuals and NGOs who have put their futures on the line for a more democratic Egypt," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Tuesday.
"This is not the way an ally should be treated. I believe that we should re-evaluate the status of our bilateral relationship during this transition period," said SFRC member Ben Cardin (D-MD).
"The Egyptian government's actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt," said House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"Continuing down this path will make it increasingly difficult for Congress to provide military and economic assistance to Egypt and for the Administration to certify legal requirements necessary for aid to move forward," said House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY).
For its part, the Egyptian government is projecting calm. In a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said that the prosecutions will go forward. "Egypt will apply the law... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," he said.
If the State Department truly believes that the judiciary and international cooperation ministries are solely to blame for the NGO crisis in Egypt, it's possible U.S. diplomats got that information directly from the Egyptian government.
At last weekend's meeting of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr professed that the executive branch in Egypt had no role and no influence over the NGO cases. "We are doing our best to contain this but…we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," he said, eliciting scoffs of disbelief from the audience.
Tuesday marked Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's first official visit to Washington in 18 months and he made extensive rounds, meeting with State Department officials and a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In the morning, Lieberman met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2010. There were no official statements made after the meeting, but Lieberman told Haaretz it was a "very good" meeting that included a lot of substance. "We are waiting for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and we express our appreciation for the support of Israel," he said. "We appreciate the very crucial decision [by the Obama administration] of sanctions against Iran, and we continue to monitor it closely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the meeting spanned the gamut of issues, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Middle East peace, Turkey, and Iraq... all in about 30 minutes.
"With regard to Iran, they talked extensively about the impact that the new sanctions are having and our efforts to work with countries around the world to wean them from Iranian oil and, obviously, our mutual commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to increase the pressure through these sanctions," Nuland said.
After Iran, the most oft discussed topic in Lieberman's Washington meetings was the new agreement between Fatah and Hamas, but Nuland said the State Department has not made a judgment on that agreement or what it will mean for the U.S. involvement in the region.
"They did discuss the fact that it's not particularly clear what this agreement will change. In particular, we still have President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the head of the government; we still have Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad responsible. And so frankly, any impact this may or may not have is unclear," she said.
That issue came up often in Lieberman's meetings on Capitol Hill Tuesday. After meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman sat down with the triumvirate of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable, Senator Lieberman said the Palestinian agreement was a major issue for him personally.
"Surprisingly, we didn't talk that much about Iran. The conversation was about the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Syria, and Egypt," Senator Lieberman said. "It's very troubling. Hamas is still on our terrorist list and still committed to the destruction of Israel... If this agreement means that Hamas and Fatah are together running the government, then it puts in real jeopardy American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."
Senator Lieberman also weighed in on reports that Fayyad will lose his position. "Fayyad has enormous credibility in the U.S. Congress, he has more credibility than any other of the Palestinian leaders," he said. "If he's gone, it's a real step backward."
He also said the portrayal of Foreign Minister Lieberman in the press, which sometimes includes accusations of anti-Arab racism, are not accurate. "The reality of the Avigdor Lieberman is better than his portrayal in the media. He's a thoughtful man, he has a big world view," Senator Lieberman said.
The Israeli foreign minister then sat down for lunch with several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee before meeting one on one with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In attendance at the HFAC lunch were Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Elliot Engel (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ted Deutsch (D-FL, whose chief of staff is named Josh Rogin), Dan Burton (R-IN), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), David Rivera (R-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa).
"We share your deep concerns about Iran, and I would appreciate your thoughts on how much time you believe there is before Iran enters into a zone of immunity," Ros-Lehtinen said at the top of the lunch meeting, before reporters were ushered out of the room. "On Iran, do you think the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, with regards to how much time we have left?"
We were told by multiple staffers that Iran dominated the discussion at the lunch but Lieberman said nothing new about Israel's intentions regarding striking Iran. (The lawmakers also served Lieberman a lunch of couscous and chick peas, traditional Middle Eastern fare, which struck some as odd considering he can probably get better versions of both foods at home.)
"Foreign Minister Lieberman made very clear the serious and present danger Iran presents to Israel, the region, and the world," Berman said in a statement. "It was clear that the Israeli government has not taken any option off the table vis-à-vis Iran."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has lifted his hold on the nomination of Obama confidant Mark Lippert to become the next top Pentagon official for Asia.
Last October, President Obama nominated Lippert to be the next assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, replacing Gen. Chip Gregson. In December, McCain wrote to Lippert to demand answers on the latter's alleged internal feud with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the National Security Council (NSC).
"In several passages of his book Obama's Wars, published in 2010, Bob Woodward discusses your official relationship with [National Security Advisor] General James L. Jones and offers a disturbing portrayal of your actions that could be described as arrogant and disloyal," McCain wrote to Lippert in December, in a letter obtained by The Cable.
"Your actions while working at the NSC are an important indicator of your fundamental qualification to carry out the duties of the critically important position for which you have been nominated," McCain wrote.
He then listed 21 specific questions for Lippert to answer in written form, dealing with almost every juicy anecdote related to White House infighting found in Woodward's book. McCain wanted to know exactly how Lippert interacted with Jones and with political advisors at the White House. He also wanted to know if Jones had power over Lippert -- or if it was the other way around.
Today, an aide to McCain confirmed to The Cable that the hold had been removed.
"Senator McCain examined Mr. Lippert's answers to his questions and lifted the hold," the aide said.
The Lippert nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where it could sit a while because all nominations are stalled due to Republican anger at the administration's recess appointment of Robert Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Lippert was one of Obama's earliest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having been with the president since his days as a senator. He was a key figure in Obama's presidential campaign and served as chief of staff of the NSC, a position that had not existed in George W. Bush's administration but which Obama resurrected in 2009.
If confirmed, Lippert takes over the Asia shop at the Pentagon for Peter Lavoy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense who has been acting as the assistant secretary for some time. That shop is also losing another top official soon: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer is leaving to join the Senate Foreign Committee Relations staff as a senior advisor and counselor.
No word yet on who will replace Schiffer, but in the meantime his duties will fall to Dave Helvey, the principal director of that office.
"As the Senate gears up to consider this year's foreign aid budget, Michael's extensive experience as a senior official and former Senate staffer will help committee efforts to preserve investments that reduce security threats, open markets for American businesses, and create opportunities for American leadership," Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in a statement.
SFRC also took on another administration official recently, Alex Lee, a Foreign Service officer who is now detailed to the committee.
Lee recently returned from Kabul but has spent most of his career in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He has served throughout Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia where he was head of the political section, Cuba where he was deputy chief of mission of the U.S. interest section, and most recently as office director for Mexican affairs.
"Alex's three-plus decades of service throughout Latin America will be invaluable to the Committee as we focus on this critical region," said Kerry.
Your humble Cable guy discussed the violence in Syria and the United Nations Security Council's failed effort last weekend to build international consensus on how to deal with the crisis on Monday evening's edition of the Rachel Maddow show with guest host Chris Hayes.
Take a look:
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
That's right, your humble Cable guy is on his way to Germany to participate in the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, one of the largest gatherings of national security officials in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), and a large delegation of experts and lawmakers led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be at the event, which begins Friday. Other senators and former officials from Washington headed to Munich include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalizad, Kurt Volker, Dan Senor, and many others.
"It is arguably the most important security conference of them all," McCain told The Cable. "It's like Davos without the Hollywood aspect."
When McCain learned that The Cable will be at the conference, blogging and tweeting the whole time, he said, "Oh, no.... I'm going to call the German embassy."
Lieberman gave The Cable a little more historical perspective about the conference, which he has been attending for over 20 years, after first being invited by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH). Bill Cohen, who served as senator and later defense secretary, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the conference at that time. Cohen passed the baton to McCain when he left the Senate, and McCain invited Lieberman to be the co-leader of the delegation to give it a bipartisan character.
"For decades, it has been an occasion to discuss critical issues in the U.S.-European alliance. In the past 10 or 15 years it really has been broadened," Lieberman said. Defense ministers and foreign ministers from just about every NATO country attend and recently more and more heads of state are showing up as well, he said.
Among the foreign leaders expected to attend, in addition to U.S. and European officials, are Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali, and perhaps even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The interactions with the Russian delegation are always interesting, Lieberman said.
"We've had some very eyeball-to-eyeball matches when President [Vladimir] Putin has come," he said.
The main topics of the formal conference sessions will be the effect of the global recession on defense budgets, what President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia means for U.S.-Europe relationship, and the uprisings in the Arab world.
But a lot of the action happens informally in the hallways and in the bilateral meetings that take place on the sidelines of the sessions. Last year, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov actually exchanged the final documents of the New START treaty there.
McCain and Lieberman always plan one stop on the way to Munich. This year, they are touching down for a few hours in Madrid to meet with the Spanish government led by newly elected President Mariano Rajoy Brey.
It's a lot of foreign policy packed into only a couple of days, but watch this site for coverage of all the action.
"It's quick," Lieberman said. "We go Thursday and we'll be back Sunday night in time for the Super Bowl."
Photograph by Kai Mörk
The Russian government is following the path of the deposed regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi and is setting itself up for a fall from power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"You need to listen to what Russian leaders themselves are saying. They say ‘We are not Libya, we are not Egypt, Russia will not go down this road,'" Saakashvili said. "I've heard that from other leaders before. I heard it from Soviet leaders. And once you start saying those things it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then you start to do certain things and to not allow certain things, and those are exactly the kind of actions that promote further sliding down this road [toward losing power]."
Not only is Russia denying the desires of its own people by suppressing protests and real democracy, it is now leading the opposition to the wave of popular revolutions that the world witnessed over the past year, said the Georgian president, who fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. The latest and greatest example, he said, is Russia's support for the brutal Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria stands as a symbol," Saakashvili said. "[The Russians] fully identify themselves with Libya but they thought that in Libya they were a fooled into action. And now with Syria they think that if Syria falls, it's the last bastion before Moscow. And this is exactly the kind of attitude that will bring problems closer home to Moscow. It's not going to help Syria in any way, but it's certainly damaging Russia a lot."
The anticipated return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency later this year is significant because his term will be marked by opposition to real reform both inside and outside Russia, Saakashvili said.
"Unlike Westerners who think in terms of superficial symbols that he's returning, the middle class in Moscow knew that he never went away," said Saakashvili. "It's not about returning Putin to the presidency, it's about what he said. And what he said was ‘I'm returning because I should stop any attempt to reform and crack down on any mode of reform,' and that's what the middle class in Russia heard."
U.S. engagement with Moscow is useful and efforts to continue the "reset" policy should continue, but all the signals from Russia indicate that it is returning to a pre-reset policy, the Georgian president added. He made the case that Russia showed real flexibility during its drive to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011, but now that it has achieved that goal, its attitude has reverted to one of confrontation.
One example is Russia's constantly stoking the rumor that the United States is planning to deploy missile defense elements to Georgia, something Saakashvili said simply isn't true.
"Vladimir Putin is talking about this all the time. Either he is strongly misguided or he's looking for reasons to say nasty things," he said.
Just minutes before his interview with The Cable, speaking in front of a packed audience in the sparkling new auditorium of the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, Saakashvili contrasted the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the Arab Spring.
"Two radical different attitudes have emerged, offered by two specific regional powers. On one hand, the Russian Federation reacted with outrage and panic to the Arab Spring and tries to do anything they can to prevent any international support to the democracy movements anywhere. On the other hand, Turkey asserts itself as the model for the post revolutionary countries," he said.
"On the one hand, the government of Vladimir Putin desperately tries to hold back the progress of history. On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan tries to embrace the revolutions of the world. Two very different prime ministers," he said. "It's not a coincidence that Russian influence is decreasing while Turkish leadership is growing in the region every day."
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's struggles following its separation from the Soviet empire, and the lessons he might offer to new governments undergoing similar difficulties.
"Georgia's experience does not provide a transferable model for many countries that have known or will sooner or later know progressive uprising. There was no freedom textbook for us, and no textbook for our friends was ever written. The real revolution occurs after the cameras from CNN, BBC, and the others have left the country. It consists of the long and difficult process of reform that follows," he said.
"This is a lesson and a message of hope. There is no future for global powers playing against the will of their own people."
The Cable also asked Saakashvili for his opinion of actor Andy Garcia's portrayal of him in the movie Five Days of War, the 2011 film about the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"I only saw parts of it, but what I know is that my English was a little better than his and that was very reassuring," he said.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will officially start work on a new sanctions bill against Iran, and senators are set to add even more sanctions to the bill as it goes through the legislative process -- including measures that directly target President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Banking Committee will mark up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named after committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who will lead Thursday's proceedings. The bill will pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
President Barack Obama's administration is still working to implement the last round of Iran sanctions that was signed into law, which included the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that were added to the defense authorization bill in December by a 100-0 vote. But the Senate has no intention of giving the administration a breather, and Thursday's mark-up is the beginning of a new and aggressive push to tighten the noose on Tehran and further damage the Iranian economy.
"Iran's continuing defiance of its international legal obligations and refusal to come clean on its nuclear program underscore the need to further isolate Iran and its leaders," Johnson said in statement about the bill.
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
Johnson and Shelby's bill expands sanctions to cover companies involved in joint ventures with Iran that aid the country's energy sector, targets any Iranian joint ventures involving uranium mining, authorizes the administration to target corporate executives of sanctioned firms, and requires U.S. companies to report to the SEC business they have with any Iranian firms that could fall under sanctions.
The Banking Committee bill is a scaled-down version of the Iran, Syria, North Korea Sanctions Consolidation Act, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Scott Brown (R-MA). The Syria and North Korea provisions in that bill were left out of the Banking Committee's version so there wouldn't be any jurisdictional confusion between the Banking Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
Several senators are set to offer amendments on Thursday to strengthen the Johnson-Shelby bill even further. Although negotiations are still ongoing, a list of the amendments in the queue as of Wednesday afternoon was obtained by The Cable.
Among the amendments that could be considered in committee on Thursday is an amendment by Menendez, offered on behalf of himself and Kirk (who is in Chicago recovering from a stroke) that would impose immigration restrictions on Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and a host of other senior Iranian government officials. The amendment would also trigger visa restrictions on Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, although those restrictions could be waived for U.N. meetings in New York.
A separate amendment by Menendez and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), also offered on behalf of Kirk, would sanction banks with officers on the board of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the organization that handles the bulk of international electronic bank transfers, if SWIFT doesn't stop processing transactions for Iranian banks.
Another Menendez amendment would require the Treasury Department to determine whether the Iranian National Oil Company and the Iranian National Tanker Company are tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they are, those two companies would then be sanctioned as well, which could wreak further havoc on Iran's economy.
"This is a reminder that there are still more stones left unturned and there are still more ways to increase the pressure on an already extraordinarily pressured Iranian economy," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In bipartisan fashion, the Senate is moving to do just that."
Both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable that $1.3 billion of annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military is in real jeopardy due to the Egyptian government's harassment of American NGO workers.
Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) both said on Tuesday that a withholding of military aid to Egypt was now on the table due to the Egyptian military's role in the Dec. 29 raids on several NGO groups in Cairo, including three U.S. government-funded organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington at the Egyptian government reached a boiling point this week when it was revealed on Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government, along with five other U.S. citizens.
The issue has already led to a divorce between the Egyptian government and its Washington lobbyists. The lobbyists said they dumped the Egyptian government over the NGO issue, while the Egyptian embassy claimed it dumped the lobbyists in order to save money.
Both Levin and McCain are set to meet with a visiting delegation of high-level Egyptian military officers next week in Washington, and they both said they will deliver the message that U.S. military aid to Egypt is tied to this issue.
"They should know that this action on their part jeopardizes a normal relationship between us," Levin said in a brief interview on his way out of the Democratic caucus lunch. "They know that, and that includes the impact it could have on aid."
McCain, who happens to be the chairman of the board of IRI, said in his own after-lunch interview that U.S. military aid to Egypt is "certainly a topic that [the Egyptians] have put on the table."
"It's hard to believe. IRI and NDI worked throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and we helped them with democracy. They're like mechanics. They come in and tell you how to organize voters, how party registration works, and that kind of stuff. They're not advocates of anybody," McCain said.
McCain has been exchanging letters with his contacts in Egypt but there's been no progress yet, he said. "I've known [SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi for years, and many of the other members of the Egyptian military. It's one of the few benefits of old age," he said.
Freedom House put out a fact sheet on Tuesday, written by its manager of congressional affairs, Sarah Trister, which argues Egypt has not met the legal obligations for receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid this year.
"Per the FY 2012 State and Foreign Operations Bill, before the administration can release the $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt, it must certify that the government of Egypt is ‘supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.' At this point, it is clear these conditions are not being met," Trister wrote.
Moreover, the Freedom House fact sheet made the case that Egypt should not receive the $300 million it receives from the United States in economic and social assistance, mainly because this money goes through the Ministry for International Cooperation, which is led by the Egyptian official believed to be driving the NGO harassment: Fayza Abul-Naga.
"The ministry that receives this funding, the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, is headed by a Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society," Trister wrote, referring to Abul-Naga.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the Egyptian Justice Ministry sent back a letter from the U.S. embassy requesting the Americans trapped in Cairo be allowed to leave.
The Washington Post ran an editorial on Tuesday criticizing the Egyptian military delegation for being tone deaf to the seriousness of the crisis, and calling on President Barack Obama's administration to use the military aid as leverage.
"The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment," the editorial said.
"Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Top Obama administration officials briefed eight senior Senate leaders Tuesday on a pending deal to transfer as many as five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The Cable staked out the classified briefing in the basement of the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. The eight senators who attended the briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The identities of the administration briefers were not shared, but we were told it was a high-level interagency briefing team.
All of the senators refused to discuss the contents of the briefing as they exited the secure briefing room in the Senate Visitors' Center. But Levin and McCain both discussed the issue in question before entering the briefing, namely the administration's negotiations with the Taliban over transferring the Taliban prisoners into Qatari custody.
Levin told reporters Tuesday that the briefing was "about the ongoing Taliban reconciliation efforts." Levin is open to the idea of transferring Taliban members to Qatar, but said the devil was in the details.
"It depends on what assurances we have from the [Qatari] government that they are not going to be released," Levin said. "But I also think the Afghans have to be very much involved in any discussions and any process. They weren't for a while."
"We're not releasing them. As I understand it they will be imprisoned in Qatar," Levin continued. But can the Qataris be trusted to keep them behind bars? "That's the question," Levin said.
Levin said he didn't know what the United States was getting in exchange for transferring the prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are preparing to open an office. But he said the possible transfer was not a significant concession to the Taliban, provided the prisoners remain in custody. "If that's what [the Taliban] are getting, it's not much of a gain [for them], going from one prison to another."
McCain, talking to reporters before the briefing, lashed out at the idea that the prisoners would be moved to Qatar in a possible exchange for a Taliban statement renouncing international violence, as has been reported.
"The whole idea that they're going to ‘transfer' these detainees in exchange for a statement by the Taliban? It is really, really bizarre," McCain said. "This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we are leaving. I know many experts who would say they are rope-a-doping us."
McCain said that Congress probably can't stop the administration from going ahead with the transfer if that's what it decides.
"I don't think right now we can do anything about it, but these people were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for deaths of several Americans," said McCain, referring to reports that the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
Is McCain confident that the Qataris will keep the Taliban prisoners locked up? "No I am not. And the Taliban don't think so either, otherwise the Taliban wouldn't want them transferred," he said.
McCain said he was last briefed about the potential deal in December.
Some of the confusion about the negotiations was caused when the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said on Jan. 22 that talks with the Taliban were a long way off and that no deal to transfer prisoners had been finalized. Grossman was in Kabul when he made the statements and he traveled to Qatar the next day.
On Jan. 28, several former members of the Taliban government said that talks with the United States had begun over the prisoner transfer. "Currently there are no peace talks going on," Maulavi Qalamuddin, the former minister of "vice and virtue" for the Taliban, told The New York Times. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."
At Tuesday morning's open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen to confirm that the Taliban under consideration for transfer were still viewed as too dangerous to release by the U.S. intelligence community.
"It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be too dangerous to transfer by the administration's own Guantánamo review task force, we get little to nothing in return. Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won't even have to stop bombing them with IEDs," Chambliss said. "I have also heard nothing from the IC[intelligence community] that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed. I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo."
Clapper said he stood by the original intelligence community assessments, which concluded that the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were too dangerous to be released.
"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," said Clapper. "And of course, part and parcel of such a decision if it were finally made would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."
Olsen, who led the review task force that evaluated the Guantanamo detainees in 2009, confirmed that the 5 prisoners being considered for transfer "were deemed too dangerous to release and who could not be prosecuted," but Olsen said he had not evaluated those five prisoners since then.
Petraeus said that his staff had been asked for a more recent evaluation of the five prisoners and that the CIA completed risk analyses based on different possible conditions for the Taliban prisoners' transfer.
"In fact, our analyst did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented, to ensure that they could not return to militant activity," Petraeus said.
Last month, Barack Obama's administration resisted provisions codifying the right to detain prisoners indefinitely, arguing that putting such language into law was unnecessary and redundant. Now, the administration is using those very provisions to defend its detention of a suspected al Qaeda militant in federal courts.
The provision in question, Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), "reaffirms the military's existing authority to detain individuals captured in the course of hostilities in accordance with the law of war." That authority was given to the administration in the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration initially threatened to veto the defense authorization bill because it contained a stronger version of Section 1021, but then revoked its veto threat after House and Senate negotiators tweaked the language.
The provision nonetheless faced opposition from civil rights organizations and some senators, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), out of concern that it could be used to justify indefinite detention of anyone suspected of terrorism, including American citizens.
President Obama specifically criticized section 1021 in his signing statement on the day the defense authorization bill became law.
"Section 1021 affirms the executive branch's authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then," Obama wrote. "My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law."
Now, thanks to Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, we learn exactly how the administration is interpreting that section of the law: It is using it to defend the indefinite detention of Musa'ab al-Madhwan, a Yemeni citizen who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for years.
"The government has filed its opposition to cert in the case of Al Madhwani v. Obama-a Guantanamo habeas case," Wittes wrote on his Lawfare blog. "Al Madhwani's cert petition seeks review of this DC Circuit opinion affirming his detention. That opinion, in turn, affirmed District Judge Thomas Hogan's earlier opinion. The government's argument is interesting because it explicitly invokes the new language in the NDAA."
In an interview, Wittes noted the irony of the administration using the legal provision it resisted in defending its arguments against Madhwani now, but said the administration had been consistent in how it defines the application of the authority to detain prisoners indefinitely.
"The administration says the provision is unnecessary and redundant and then this shows up in their brief, but merely as support of their interpretation of the prior law. There's no hypocrisy here," Wittes said. "It would be weird of them not to cite an on-point federal statute that supports their argument."
Still, one of the supporters of the provision in Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), told The Cable Tuesday that the administration's embrace of his provision was disingenuous. "I guess it's a high form of flattery," McCain said.
Another sponsor of the provision, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), told The Cable Tuesday that although the administration strenuously opposed earlier versions of the provision, the administration didn't outright oppose the final version, despite the unenthusiastic signing statement. "I'm not at all surprised that they used a provision that they ultimately didn't oppose in their briefs," he said.
There's been plenty of reporting about the Georgian government's extensive lobbying effort in Washington, but little is known about the new and expansive lobbying effort now in place on behalf of a Georgian billionaire and a leading opposition lawmaker, who are confronting Georgia's president on the world stage.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Washington today, having lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office -- a testament to the recent successes in the U.S.-Georgia relationship, as well as the successful efforts of Saakashvili's Washington lobbying duo, made up of the firms Orion Strategies and the Podesta Group.
"I think Georgia should be extraordinarily proud of the progress that is made in building a sovereign and democratic country," Obama said after the meeting. "And one of the first things that I did was express my appreciation for the institution-building that's been taking plac in Georgia; the importance of making sure that minorities are respected; the importance of a police and system of rule of law that is being observed -- the kinds of institution-building that is going to make an enormous difference in the future of not just this generation of Georgians but future generations of Georgians."
But if Saakashvili opened up his morning New York Times or Washington Post when he woke up at Blair House on Monday, he would have seen a full-page ad sponsored by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire tycoon of Georgian descent who is working closely with Irakli Alasania, the leader of Georgia's Free Democrats Party and the president's main political rival.
"The Rose Revolution of 2003 inspired many, myself included, to hope that Georgia would move toward a pluralistic democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and a free and open society," Ivanishvili wrote in the ad, which was framed as an open letter to Obama. "What we have instead is a super-centralized, almost neo-Bolshevik style of governance, which exhausted itself long ago, which not only impedes the nation's progress, but also jeopardizes its own achievements.
"We urge the leaders of the USA and the entire democratic community, do proceed and encourage the nation's movement towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, and at the same time, do apply all assets available to secure free and fair ballot for our citizens at the October 2012 parliamentary elections," the ad reads.
The ad identifies Ivanishvili as a Georgian businessman and philanthropist who was stripped of his citizenship by Saakashvili. The Georgian government contends Ivanishvili never renounced his French citizenship and needs a presidential waiver to hold dual nationalities -- a waiver he isn't likely to get. Regardless, Ivanishvili and his "Georgian Dream" movement are increasingly vocal in Georgia, and now in Washington as well.
Ivanishvili is currently paying the lobbying firm BGR Group $25,000 per month, according to disclosure filings, in a contract signed last November. He is also paying another $20,000 per month to Sam Patten, a Tbilisi-based consultant who is working with BGR on behalf of Ivanishvili, the disclosure records show. That money is paid through a London-based entity called BGR-Garbara, LTD, which the records state is working on behalf of Ivanishvili.
BGR-Garbara, LTD, also pays Patten $10,000 per month to work on behalf of Alasania, according to disclosure filings, to "advise U.S. officials" on political developments in Georgia, and for "arranging meetings with U.S. officials on behalf of the foreign principal [Alasania]."
Another contract filing shows that BGR-Garbara, LTD, also pays BGR an undisclosed sum to work on behalf of Alasania and the Free Democrats. The filing defines BGR-Garbara, LTD, as "a pan-European government affairs and public relations firm engaged by ‘Free Democrats'... for the purposes of promoting a stronger Georgian democracy through fair, open, and honest elections in 2012." Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker is also working on the contract for BGR, according to lobbying e-mails sent out by BGR to journalists and non-governmental organizations.
We're told by two sources that Alasania and Ivanishvili have also recently signed a contract with Patton Boggs, a powerful D.C. lobbying law firm, although no disclosure forms have yet been submitted. Both sources also confirmed that Ivanishvili's representatives made a pass at the Podesta Group, offering to double their fee to switch teams, but Podesta declined.
Ivanishvili is also working with Sam Amsterdam, the son of Robert Amsterdam, the Canadian lawyer made famous by his defense of imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There's no disclosure filing for that relationship because Sam Amsterdam is not a U.S. citizen and is not lobbying U.S. officials. Ivanishvili has made statements criticizing Khordorkovsky in the past. Robert Amsterdam is not working with Ivanishvili or his son on the project.
Ivanishvili's critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man," and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili's ties to Russia are not only political, but economic. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the semi-state controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
Patten, in a phone interview from Tbilisi, told The Cable that the Georgian opposition is simply maturing to the point where it recognizes the need for greater international stature.
Ivanishvili made his money in Russia before Putin's return to power, Patten said. Ivanishvili believes that confronting the Georgian government's lobbying in Washington is part of his effort to show the world there is an alternative to the Saakashvili government.
"In the Georgian mentality, there's a sense that Washington creates outcomes, but you have to win an election based on what you do on the ground," said Patten. "In the end, that's what matters."
Regardless, for Georgia-watchers around Washington, there are now two full fledged lobbying efforts to contend with. In a recent interview, Ivanishvili promised to ramp up his lobbying efforts around the world.
"They [the government] are spending a lot of money on lobbyists... The money of the people... They are wasting the money of the poor people," he said. "We have started very serious work and it needs to be organized well. In a few months, we will change the situation and we will change the attitude of the Europe and the U.S., and we will show them the reality. You will see this very soon."
Correction: This article originally stated -- incorrectly -- that DLA Piper was the third lobbying partner for the Georgian government. In fact, there are only two firms. Additionally, the original article contained a quote attributed to Alasania that could not be independently verified.
VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will go the United Nations on Tuesday to press the Security Council to take action regarding Syria, in light of what the State Department is calling a "sharp escalation of regime violence."
The Arab-European draft resolution was discussed on Jan. 27 behind closed doors at the U.N. Security Council and will see public debate on Tuesday. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures will be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days. In anticipation of that debate, where Russia is expected to staunchly oppose any resolution calling for Assad's departure, Clinton issued a new statement on the situation inside Syria that many saw as newly aggressive rhetoric from President Barack Obama's administration.
"In the past few days we have seen intensified Syrian security operations all around the country which have killed hundreds of civilians. The government has shelled civilian areas with mortars and tank fire and brought down whole buildings on top of their occupants. The violence has escalated to the point that the Arab League has had to suspend its monitoring mission. The regime has failed to meet its commitments to the Arab League to halt its acts of violence, withdraw its military forces from residential areas, allow journalists and monitors to operate freely and release prisoners arrested because of the current unrest," Clinton said in the statement.
"The Security Council must act and make clear to the Syrian regime that the world community views its actions as a threat to peace and security. The violence must end, so that a new period of democratic transition can begin," she said. "Tomorrow, I will attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria where the international community should send a clear message of support to the Syrian people: we stand with you. The Arab League is backing a resolution that calls on the international community to support its ongoing efforts, because the status quo is unsustainable. The longer the Assad regime continues its attacks on the Syrian people and stands in the way of a peaceful transition, the greater the concern that instability will escalate and spill over throughout the region."
Clinton's statement comes after weeks of careful planning inside the Obama administration on when and how to confront the escalating violence in Syria. National Security Council Senior Director Steve Simon had been leading a small interagency team to game out U.S. policy options, but now the administration's policy machinery has kicked into full gear, meeting often to discuss a range of diplomatic maneuvers that could increase pressure on the Assad regime.
There's no longer any expectation inside the administration that Moscow will support international action aimed at removing Assad from power, even by non-military means. But the U.N. confrontation is meant to isolate Russia diplomatically and make it clear that the Arab League and its Western friends have exhausted all diplomatic options before moving to directly aid the internal opposition, if that decision is ultimately made.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that Clinton, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns, and Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman have all been working the phones hard to build support for the U.N. resolution. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been "unavailable" while traveling in Australia, even though Clinton has been trying to reach him all day.
"The message that we are sending, the message that the secretary will send tomorrow when she goes to New York, is that the Security Council now needs to act, because the spiral of violence is dangerous not only for Damascus, not only for Syria and all Syrians, but it's also dangerous in the region, because obviously, you know, we've now got a cycle of violence that is quite worrying," Nuland said.
"You think there is still a path out for the regime?" one reporter asked.
"Well, that's obviously still on the table," Nuland said. "It requires Assad to step aside. "
MARTIAL TREZZINI/AFP/Getty Image
All three of the lobbying firms representing the Egyptian government in Washington, D.C., dropped Egypt as a client late Friday amid widespread criticism of the ruling military council's raid of U.S. NGOs in Cairo and its refusal to let American NGO workers leave the country.
The Livingston Group, run by former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), the Moffett Group, run by former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-CT), and the Podesta Group, run by Tony Podesta, unanimously severed their combined $90,000 per month contract with the Egyptian government, Politico reported late Friday, quoting Livingston directly. The three firms had formed what is known as the PLM Group, a lobbying entity created to advocate on behalf of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February 2011 after 18 days of massive street protests. According to the disclosure filings, Egypt has paid PLM more than $4 million since 2007.
The trio came under fire last week for circulating talking points defending Egypt's Dec. 29 raid of several NGOs working to train political parties in Egypt, including three organizations partially funded by the U.S. government. The groups had been working in Egypt for years without being technically registered with the government, but now stand accused of fomenting unrest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been ruling the country since Mubarak's ouster.
"It is bad enough when the actions of American lobbyists conflict with U.S. national interests. It is far worse when their influence-peddling undermines American values, as the Egyptian government's lobbyists in Washington are doing in this instance," said Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in a Jan. 24 statement. McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the groups that had their Cairo offices raided. The other two groups were the National Democratic Institute, whose board is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington against the Egyptian government reached a boiling point when it was revealed Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government along with five other U.S. citizens.
"To have an American lobbyist lobbying for a government where these activities are taking place -- is there no shame in this town?" said Rep. Frank Wolf on Thursday.
On Friday, Sam LaHood told NPR that he and the other Americans trapped in Egypt could face criminal charges, lengthy trials, and years of prison time.
"If we are referred to trial," LaHood said. "The trial could last up to a year ... and the potential penalty is six months to five years in jail."
The lobbying groups buckled under the public pressure, recognizing that they couldn't influence the SCAF's actions in this case and that their association with the military council was harming their broader image. For years, these firms have been defending the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual aid package on Capitol Hill and lobbying for non-military aid to go through the government, and not directly to independent organizations as many democracy advocates urged.
The Cable reported that in late 2010, Bob Livingston personally called Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to get him to kill a Senate resolution calling for greater respect for human rights and democracy in Egypt. Wicker placed a hold on the resolution and it died in the Senate.
Egypt's lobbyists were also responsible for negotiating an endowment the Egyptian government wanted from the Obama administration. But the Mubarak regime demanded the money be given with no annual Congressional oversight, and the negotiations broke down.
Congress did place new restrictions on military aid to Egypt in the most recent appropriations bill passed in December, as a way of pressing the SCAF to move faster toward handing over its executive powers to an elected government.
According to the legislation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that the Egyptian government is living up to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and that the SCAF is supporting the transition to civilian rule. Multiple congressional aides told The Cable Friday that the aid is now in serious jeopardy.
"Needless to say, this whole crisis is going to make it a lot more difficult for the secretary of state to meet the certification requirements to continue providing assistance to Egypt," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. "People up here are completely seized with this issue. They're putting their friends in a really awful spot."
Another senior Senate aide noted that the Obama administration is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to deescalate the crisis, which is threatening to do long-term harm to the official U.S.-Egypt relationship.
President Barack Obama brought up the raids in a call last week with SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the White House. Clinton, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Lahood have been working the phones hard, calling contacts in Egypt to send strong messages and implore them to change course. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner was in Egypt on Jan. 26 and met with high-level Egyptian officials.
"Since the NGO raids in late December, the Obama administration has repeatedly provided paths for the SCAF to deescalate this crisis. Instead they keep escalating -- doubling down on a bad bet that, in the end, will prove ruinous to them," the Senate aide said. "Three weeks ago no one in Congress thought there was a chance in hell that aid to the Egyptian military could ever come under serious threat. It is now an increasingly and shockingly real prospect."
Ironically, McCain and Lieberman had been among the U.S. leaders most supportive of the SCAF and its role in maintaining stability during Egypt's fragile transition.
Many in Washington believe that the SCAF is being heavily influenced on this issue by one civilian Egyptian official, Fayza Abul-Naga, the minister of international cooperation and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In a speech this week, she disavowed the SCAF's previous promises to return the NGOs' raided possessions and cease harassing them as she lashed out at the American NGO groups.
Lorne Craner, the president of IRI, said in an interview Friday with The Cable that there is bad blood between Abul-Naga's ministry and the NGO groups. "Some people say that the people who used to get the money, for example the minister of international cooperation, resent the fact that they are not getting all of the funding," Craner said.
Meanwhile, the Americans and several of their locally hired staffers are enduring hours-long interviews as they await a possible arrest, which would only escalate the crisis.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," Craner said. "You start to think about Americans getting arrested on the streets of Cairo and sitting in a cage in some Cairo court ... And these are our allies."
UPDATE: On Sunday the Egyptian Embassy in Washington issued a statement claiming they dumped the PLM Group, not the other way around:
The Government of Egypt had decided to terminate its contractual relationship with the PLM Group. This decision was transmitted to the Group's principals on January 27th 2012 through an official letter, as the contract stipulates, that either party has the right to terminate the relation within a 60 days prior notice.
It is surprising that a distorted version of this fact is being circulated in some media outlets. It is equally disturbing that articles and media coverage of the issue were made without an attempt to contact the Egyptian Embassy to check the factual basis of the stories reported.
This Press Release attempts to clarify the situation in line with the official documents related to the matter including the letter of termination which was recently transmitted by the Embassy to the PLM Group.
The Cable has obtained a copy of the draft resolution on Syria currently being discussed inside the U.N. Security Council. It calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy and says additional measures would be taken if he doesn't comply within 15 days.
U.N. Security Council diplomats are meeting behind closed doors on Friday to discuss what's being called the Arab-European draft resolution on Syria. The Moroccan ambassador is presenting the draft resolution, which is designed to implement the recommendations of the Arab League transition plan laid out on Jan. 22.
The draft resolution condemns "the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities," demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to all human rights violations, and calls on both sides to end attacks and violence immediately.
The resolution then lays out a political roadmap that matches the Arab League initiative intended to pave the way for a transition "leading to a democratic, plural political system" through the formation of a national unity government, the handing over of all presidential authority to Assad's deputy for a transition period, and then the holding of free and fair elections with international supervision.
Importantly, the draft resolution requests that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon report on the implementation of the resolution every 15 days and also directs the Security Council "to review Syria's implementation of this resolution [in] 15 days and, in the event that Syria has not complied, to adopt further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States."
Representatives from the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland spelled out the broad goals the United States has for the final version of the resolution.
"We are looking for a resolution that reflects the commitments that the Arab League was seeking from the Syrian government, that -- in its November 2nd agreement, which unfortunately has not been lived up to by the Syrian side," Nuland said.
She indicated the United States was hopeful that Russia, which has been openly supporting Assad and sending him weapons, will work with the rest of the Security Council to produce a resolution that is strong and effective. Russia and China vetoed European resolution on Syria last fall and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Friday that Russia would veto any resolution that seeks to remove Assad from power.
"We continue to want to work with the Russians so that the whole U.N. Security Council is united in sending the strongest possible message to the Assad regime that the violence has got to end, and we've got to begin a transition," Nuland said.
President Barack Obama's administration has been delaying its planned $53 million arms sale to Bahrain due to human rights concerns and congressional opposition, but this week administration officials told several congressional offices that they will move forward with a new and different package of arms sales -- without any formal notification to the public.
The congressional offices that led the charge to oppose the original Bahrain arms sales package are upset that the State Department has decided to move forward with the new package. The opposition to Bahrain arms sales is led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and also includes Senate Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee chairman Robert Casey (D-PA), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Wyden and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have each introduced a resolution in their respective chambers to prevent the U.S. government from going through with the original sale, which would have included 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles.
The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process, which requires posting the information on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn't meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation.
At today's State Department press briefing, The Cable asked spokeswoman Victoria Nuland about the new sale. She acknowledged the new package but didn't have any details handy.
Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification, which would allow Congress to object and possibly block the deal.
We're further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain's "external defense" and therefore couldn't be used against protesters. Of course, that's the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.
Regardless, congressional opponents to Bahrain arms sales are planning to fight back. Wyden is circulating a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that Bahrain's government continues to commit human rights violations and should not be rewarded with U.S. arms sales.
"The Bahraini government has shown little progress in improving their human rights record over the last few months and in some ways, their record has gotten worse," Wyden told The Cable on Friday. "Protesters are still being hurt and killed, midnight arrests are still happening and the government continues to deny access to human rights monitors. The kingdom of Bahrain has not shown a true good faith effort to improve human rights in their country and the U.S. should not be rewarding them as if they have."
"Supplying arms to a regime that continues to persecute its citizens is not in the best interest of the United States," Wyden said. "When the government of Bahrain shows that it respects the human rights of its citizens it will become more stable and a better ally in the region; only then should arms sales from the U.S. resume."
That point was echoed by McGovern, who pledged to oppose any arms sales to Bahrain.
"The government of Bahrain continues to perpetrate serious human rights abuses and to deny independent monitors access to the country," McGovern told The Cable. "Until Bahrain takes more substantial and lasting steps to protect the rights of its own citizens, the United States should not reward its government with any military sales."
A State Department official declined to give specifics of the new arms package to The Cable but said that Bahrain was moving in the right direction.
"We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's recommendations, but more needs to be done," the official said. "We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation."
Cherif Bassiouni, the chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that investigated the government crackdown on protests in 2011, recently said in an interview that the administration is not doing enough to pressure the Bahrain regime. "There is merit in naming and shaming and embarrassing, in pushing, in enlisting public opinion, domestic and international. This is not the style of Secretary Clinton or President Obama, and I'm not sure they are necessarily doing the right choice," he said.
Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told The Cable on Friday that the new sale will be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its repression.
"In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region," he said. "Rewarding regimes that repress peaceful dissent with arms sales simply does not square with the administration's rhetoric. The administration can no longer afford to endorse the status quo in Bahrain."
Maryam al-Khawaja, the head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told The Cable on Friday that the sale of U.S. arms to the Bahraini regime sends the wrong message to the people of Bahrain, and the region in general.
"This message of ‘business as usual' will only strengthen the regime's belief that there will continue to be lack of consequences to their human rights violations internationally," she said. "At a time when the United States is already being criticized for practicing double standards when it comes to the so-called Arab spring, to the protesters in Bahrain, the U.S. selling any arms to the government of Bahrain is exactly like Russia selling arms to Syria. Bahrain has become the United States' test on how serious they are about standing against human rights violations, and they are failing miserably."
UPDATE: Late Friday evening, the State Department sent out a lenghty statement on the arms sales:
We are maintaining a pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform.
During the last two weeks, representatives from the State Department and Department of Defense briefed appropriate Congressional staff on our intention to release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain's external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations. This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment. None of these items can be used against protestors.
This isn't a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole. The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require Congressional notification. In fact, we've gone above and beyond what is legally or customarily required by consulting with Congressional staff on items that do not require Congressional notification.
We have and will continue to use our security assistance to reinforce reforms in Bahrain. We have seen some important initial steps from the Bahraini government in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's (BICI) recommendations, but more needs to be done. We urge the government of Bahrain to take action on the full range of recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation.
We will continue to consult extensively with Congress on this policy.
President Barack Obama is personally enamored with a recent essay written by neoconservative writer Bob Kagan, an advisor to Mitt Romney, in which Kagan argues that the idea the United States is in decline is false.
"The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe," Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. "From the coalitions we've built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we've led against hunger and disease; from the blows we've dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back."
"Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about," Obama said.
Just hours earlier on Tuesday, in an off-the-record meeting with leading news anchors, including ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's Brian Williams, Obama drove home that argument using an article written in the New Republic by Kagan titled "The Myth of American Decline."
Obama liked Kagan's article so much that he spent more than 10 minutes talking about it in the meeting, going over its arguments paragraph by paragraph, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to The Cable.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will also discuss Kagan's essay and Obama's love of it Thursday night with Charlie Rose on PBS.
Kagan's article examines and then sets out to debunk each of the arguments that America is in decline, which include commonly held assumptions that America's power and influence are waning due to its economic troubles, the rise of other world powers, the failure of U.S. efforts to solve big problems like the Middle East conflict, and the seeming inability of the U.S. government to tackle problems.
"Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman's latest book, that ‘that used to be us,'" Kagan writes.
But Kagan argues that the United States has gone through several similarly challenging periods in the past and has always managed to rebound and come out ahead. He writes that American decline is a risk, and a dangerous one at that, but by no means is it a foregone conclusion.
"In the end, the decision is in the hands of Americans," he writes. "Decline, as Charles Krauthammer has observed, is a choice. It is not an inevitable fate-at least not yet. Empires and great powers rise and fall, and the only question is when. But the when does matter. Whether the United States begins to decline over the next two decades or not for another two centuries will matter a great deal, both to Americans and to the nature of the world they live in."
For the White House, the Kagan article, and the forthcoming book it's based on, The World America Made, offer the perfect rebuttal to GOP accusations that Obama has willingly presided over a period of American decline or has been "leading from behind" on foreign policy.
Romney hits on this theme often, such as when he said in a December debate, "Our president thinks America is in decline. It is if he's president, it's not if I'm president."
In his foreign policy white paper, Romney states clearly that he believes that Obama has resigned himself to American decline.
"A perspective has been gaining currency, including within high councils of the Obama administration, that regards the United States as a power in decline. And not only is the United States regarded as in decline, but that decline is seen as both inexorable and a condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed," the white paper reads.
But as the economy slowly improves, that argument is harder to make, and the Obama campaign is now trying to use Romney's own assessment against him.
"Governor Romney may be rooting for slips and falls here. We're concentrating on moving this economy forward," Obama's political advisor David Axelrod said earlier this month.
The fact that it is Kagan refuting Romney's argument is especially sweet for the White House, because Kagan is a special advisor to the Romney campaign on national security and foreign policy.
Contacted by The Cable, Kagan said he was pleased Obama liked his essay and he is further pleased that Obama is not resigned to an America in decline.
"I think it's important that the president also doesn't see the nation in decline and I hope his policies reflect that and not the idea we should be accommodating American decline as a lot of people are recommending," said Kagan. "I hope he rejects that and still believes we should provide the kind of leadership we are capable of."
Kagan is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post.
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Following her successful battle with esophageal cancer, Ellen Tauscher is taking a step back and handing over several of her responsibilities as the State Department's top arms control official, State Department officials told The Cable today.
In early February, Tauscher will formally resign as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security and be appointed to a newly created position called the "special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense." She will be working part-time, using her new flexibility to work on cancer patient advocacy and pursuing projects outside of government. Officials told The Cable that after 13 years in Congress and 3 years in the administration, she decided that the time had come for her to take a breather and focus on other interests.
"Ellen has been campaigning, legislating, and working at a breakneck pace for nearly 16 years and, now with a new lease on life, she wants to focus on some new opportunities while still working on critically important national security issues," a State Department official told The Cable today.
Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification, and compliance, is expected to be named as Tauscher's replacement. She will lead the "T" office, as it is known, at least for the duration of the year, multiple State Departments officials said. There's no expectation that the Senate will be able to confirm any arms control officials before the November presidential election, so the administration won't try.
In her new special envoy role, Tauscher will report directly up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and will maintain control of several specific projects she has been working on. She will remain the lead official on the president's bilateral commission on strategic stability with Russia, and will keep her role as lead negotiator for a missile defense cooperation agreement with Russia.
Tauscher will also maintain her role overseeing the implementation of the administration's missile defense scheme in Europe, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach, which was one of her key issues when she led the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee. Tauscher will also maintain her role as the lead U.S. government official on civilian nuclear cooperation around the world, in anticipation of the Nuclear Security Summit this year in Seoul.
Officials told The Cable that Tauscher's work on cancer issues with Duke University, where she was treated, will focus on the standardization of care for cancer patients. She wants to work to ensure everybody has access to the elite level of care she received in her time of need. Her last day as undersecretary will be Feb. 6.
Defense budgeting has been even more convoluted and politicized than usual this year, mostly because of the looming $600 billion in mandatory defense cuts over ten years, known as the "trigger" or "sequestration." Republicans in Congress are pledging to stop the trigger, but there are different competing plans on how to do so.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Cable Tuesday in an interview that he is only days away from unveiling his proposal to roll back the required defense cuts that are mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, signed by President Barack Obama last August. The trigger, which also mandates $600 billion in cuts to Medicaid, was set into motion by the November failure of the congressional bipartisan "supercommittee" to strike a deal to reduce the federal budget by $1.2 trillion over the same period. The cuts are scheduled to go into effect in January 2013.
The only other legislation that has been introduced to avoid sequestration besides McCain's forthcoming proposal is the bill by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), which would delay sequestration for both defense and entitlements for one year by reducing the federal workforce through attrition - saving money by not allowing agencies to replace workers -- over the next decade. McKeon's plan would save the approximately $120 billion needed to delay the implementation of sequestration from January 2013 until January 2014.
McCain told The Cable that McKeon's proposal was "not good." McCain said his own plan will only protect the defense budget, not entitlements, from sequestration for one year. McCain said he is also working on another plan to roll back the $460 billion of defense cuts over ten years that the Obama administration announced last April and that are being incorporated into the administration's fiscal 2013 budget request, coming next month.
"We're going to work on a one-year plan for just defense, to start with," McCain said. "We're working on one proposal to avoid sequestration. We're working on another proposal specifically on the $460 billion that's going into effect this year."
Meanwhile, the GOP House leadership has yet to endorse either the McCain or the McKeon ideas. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters Monday that he had wanted to undo the entire 10 years of defense cuts, but would consider tackling the defense cuts for one year if that's the only possibility. Some on Capitol Hill see that as Cantor moving toward the McKeon bill.
"So if ten years is a problem, then let's go back and maybe we can find one year's worth of pay for that can at least stave off the sequester from being implemented Jan. 1, 2013, so that maybe we can have this election take place and be able to avoid it," Cantor said. "I just think the defense of this country is a priority. It is the priority."
Part of the confusion over what to do about the trigger relates to the statement Obama made on the day the supercommittee failed to reach a deal.
"I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one," Obama declared. "The only way these spending cuts will not take place is if Congress gets back to work to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion [over ten years]. They've still got a year to figure it out."
Many on Capitol Hill view that statement as an indication the administration won't accept efforts to bypass the trigger that only addresses the defense half of the equation.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) has his own idea on how to stave off the deep cuts to both defense and entitlements -- raise taxes.
"We should do something intelligent, which means establish priorities for any reductions but most importantly focus on revenues," Levin told The Cable today. "You've got to have revenues."
But isn't the GOP refusal to raise revenues (read = taxes) the whole reason the supercommittee failed in the first place, we asked Levin? Why does he think it's possible to do it now, in an election year?
"I think the Republicans are going to realize that the public wants fairness in the tax code, they want upper income folks to have their rates restored," Levin said.
While lawmakers decide how to stave off the sequestration cuts, the administration is battling internally over the budget release. Two sources told us that the Pentagon isn't happy about the White House's decision to delay the release of its fiscal 2013 budget request one week, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 13.
The Pentagon is going forward with its plan to preview selected parts of its budget to the public on Thursday, and lawmakers will get special briefings tonight.
Of course, all these discussions could be moot if Congress again fails to pass any appropriations bills in the run-up to the elections in November, as it did in 2010. And after the election, the entire situation could change again... especially if a Republican takes the White House.
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The Treasury Department today designated Iran's third-largest bank, Bank Tejarat, as subject to new sanctions, on the same day the EU announced a complete oil embargo of Iran.
"At a time when banks around the world are cutting off Iran and its currency is depreciating rapidly, today's action against Bank Tejarat strikes at one of Iran's few remaining access points to the international financial system," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement. "Today's sanction against Bank Tejarat will deepen Iran's financial isolation, make its access to hard currency even more tenuous, and further impair Iran's ability to finance its illicit nuclear program."
Bank Tejarat is being sanctioned for providing financial services to Bank Mellat, the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI), the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), and the Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), all of which were previously sanctioned for the involvement in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Treasury also sanctioned Iran's Trade Capital Bank, a Minsk-based subsidiary of Bank Tejarat, bringing the total number of Iranian financial institutions under U.S. sanctions to 23, according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. Because the banks are being sanctioned under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), any foreign bank that does business with these Iranian banks risks losing access to the U.S. financial system.
In its statement, Treasury accused Bank Tejarat of facilitating the movement of tens of millions of dollars to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for the purchase of uranium. Treasury also said the bank has helped other Iranian organizations circumvent sanctions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
"Iran's economic isolation seems to worsen each day as reflected in its plummeting currency, the Iranian rial," a senior Treasury official told reporters in a Monday afternoon briefing."
The official said the Iranian government is going to extraordinary lengths to prop up the rial.
"In recent weeks, the government has tried to ban the sale of Western currency. It reportedly has restricted citizens' ability to communicate by blocking text messages containing the word ‘euro' or ‘dollar.' Plainclothes police officers are reportedly patrolling the currency exchanges to enforce currency restrictions and arrest violators," the official said.
The Treasury and State Departments are also in the process of implementing the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which the official said would cause more pain for the Iranian economy.
"The economic hardship it is currently facing will only increase in the months to come, and will continue to increase as long as Iran refuses to meaningfully engage with the international community regarding its nuclear program," the official said.
A reporter asked the official when Treasury would issue the implementation rules for the new CBI sanctions. Lawmakers are concerned the rules may be crafted in a way to allow some partner countries to avoid cutting off all business with Iran.
"As soon as they are ready," the official said.
Almost two years ago, The Cable reported on the Pentagon investigation into the actions of former Afghanistan commander Gen. David Barno, who stands accused of abusing his position as head of the Near East South Asia Center (NESA) at the National Defense University (NDU).
The investigation is complete but the Pentagon won't release it, claiming it is under "legal review," angering lawmakers who have been following the issue.
Barno, who is currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, ran the NESA center at NDU from 2006 to 2009, following his retirement from the Army as a three-star general. He was the head of Combined Forces Command -- Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
A special unit of the Defense Department's Inspector General's office (IG) that focuses on senior officials opened an investigation into his leadership at NDU in 2008, following allegations that he presided over an office that misspent taxpayer funds, abused contractor employees and threatened them with termination, awarded jobs based on favoritism rather than merit, and created an overall atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the center.
Congressional efforts to get the Pentagon to share the results of its investigation have stretched on for years -- and so far have been stymied. In a series of letters between the IG's office and one of the lawmakers following the issue, obtained by The Cable, the IG's office claims that the investigation is under "legal review" and therefore the results can't be shared.
"I am concerned with recent news reports that the Director of the Near East South Asia Center, which is part of the taxpayer funded National Defense University, is alleged to have wasted taxpayer funds and hired government employees due to personal relationships and not merit," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), wrote to Inspector General Gordon Heddell, in an April 9, 2010 letter.
Three days later, Assistant Inspector General John Crane wrote to Coburn to tell him the Office of Senior Official Investigations had initiated an investigation into Barno in December 2008, based on anonymous allegations.
"The fieldwork portion of this investigation has been completed and report is being prepared," Crane wrote on April 12, 2010.
In August 2010, Crane wrote to Coburn again to say the Barno investigation report was undergoing an "internal review," and the results would be provided to Coburn after a "final review" was completed. Crane again promised to give Coburn the report in a November 2010 letter.
By February 2011, Crane still had not handed over the report, but claimed in a new letter that the investigation had been reopened due to a new allegation -- but now was finished for real. He promised again to hand over the results as soon as possible.
In May 2011, Crane wrote Coburn yet again and said that the internal review was "taking longer than originally anticipated." The last letter came in August 2011, when Crane told Coburn that the investigation had been reopened to interview one of the accusers but now was under internal review again. "The final results of this investigation will be provided to you as soon as possible," Crane wrote. That was six months ago, and no further information has been provided to lawmakers or the public.
The IG's office and Barno did not respond to requests for comment. The Cable has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all records related to the Barno investigation and that request is still pending.
The allegations against Barno were described to The Cable by four NESA employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of reprisal. In one example cited by all four employees, a senior staffer close to Barno discouraged the use of Arabic at the center, despite its mandate to engage people from Arabic-speaking countries, creating an abusive work environment. Another focus of the investigators, according to the employees, was Barno's appointment of his chief of operations Rosaline Cardarelli's husband, John Ballard, a former professor of strategic studies at the National War College, as the center's academic dean.
The NESA Center's 2008 alumni symposium, which was held in Prague, also was scrutinized by investigators. NESA employees estimated that more than $250,000 of NESA funds were spent on the trip, but few alumni attended and the reasons for choosing the Czech capital to host alumni from the Near East and South Asia were never clear.
Overall, all four employees reported an atmosphere at the center that was intimidating and unfriendly, where contractors were unable to collect money for overtime hours worked and feared termination if they complained, and where Barno's top staffers monitored email and phone calls of employees to the point of harassment.
"I've never seen a situation in which such a small agency is mismanaged so badly," one NESA employee with decades of government experience told The Cable at the time. "It is to me incredible that you can have, on one hand, such mismanagement and that no one is prepared, evidently, to do anything about it."
Amid growing concerns about security in Damascus, the Obama administration is considering closing the U.S. Embassy in Damascus unless the Syrian government can guarantee security in the area, The Cable has learned.
An administration official confirmed to The Cable Friday that U.S. officials have been in discussions with the Syrian regime in an effort to negotiate new security agreements for the streets surrounding the embassy, which have become more and more dangerous for U.S. personnel as the violence in Damascus has drawn closer to the central city. Those streets house several other foreign embassies as well, meaning that if the Syrian government does not meet requests for better security guarantees, several countries could be forced to roll up their diplomatic presence in Damascus, despite their preference to stay.
"We've had serious concerns about the fact that the mission is exposed, as have other embassies," the administration official told The Cable. "We've been in to see the Syrians to request extra security measures. They are deciding what they can do. If they can't meet our concerns, we're going to have to consider closing [the embassy]."
Over the past few months, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has worked to keep the embassy open and functioning amid physical attacks on him and the embassy building, usually by groups of thugs who support the Syrian regime. Unlike newer embassy designs, the U.S. facility in Damascus sits right on the street, dangerously exposed.
"He's been working on this for a couple of weeks," the official said. The official declined to specify exactly what the security threats are or how long the Syrian government has to make up its mind.
The embassy staff remains the administration's best eyes and ears on what's going on inside Syria, U.S. officials argue, as they maintain links with both the government and the opposition.
Last week, the State Department announced that more U.S. diplomats would be leaving Damascus due to the deteriorating security situation there.
"Due to security concerns in Syria, in October 2011, the embassy was designated an unaccompanied post with restricted staffing. The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible," stated a Jan. 11 travel warning. "U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria."
We'll bring you more as the situation develops...
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) visited the "Hanoi Hilton" prison today, where he was jailed and tortured for years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
"Touring the Hanoi Hilton this morning - it's been converted
into a museum
#Vietnam," McCain tweeted Friday from the trip through
Southeast Asia he is on with Sens. Joe
Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte
(R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). "Also visited Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi - where
I landed after being shot down in 1967 - & the monument to my capture."
Politico reported that McCain has visited the Hanoi Hilton several times: "A frequent visitor to the Hanoi Hilton, he was last there in 2009.... McCain first returned to the Hanoi Hilton in 1985 -- the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon -- with legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite. He visited again in the early 1990s with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a fellow Vietnam veteran, to promote efforts to normalize relations with the communist country. McCain also made a trip there shortly after losing the GOP presidential primary race in 2000."
Speaking with the New York Times after his 2000 trip, McCain scoffed at the Vietnamese government's whitewashing of what went on at the prison and described the daily torture and propaganda he and other prisoners were forced to endure.
"'I still bear them ill will,'' he said of the prison guards, ''not because of what they did to me, but because of what they did to some of my friends -- including killing some of them.''
McCain also tweeted photographs of the delegation's meeting with the Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang.
The delegation visited the Philippines earlier this week, where they met with President Benigno Aquino III, among others. Lieberman took the lead in tweeting during that leg of the trip.
"1st stop - Philippines. Dawn of a new era in our 60 yr alliance, which grows stronger based on shared history, interests, values, and future," Lieberman tweeted on Jan. 17. "US must support Philippines military, esp maritime domain awareness and territorial defense."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.